Chiang Mai / Thailand

Ethical Tourism: Visiting An Elephant Sanctuary In Chiang Mai

Traveling to Chiang Mai and seeking to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary during your visit? Maybe you’re unsure what the difference between an ethical and unethical tour might be? Look no further… Here we will be walking you through why to choose an ethical sanctuary when visiting Thailand elephant tours and providing you with information on the top rated elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai so you can pick the perfect sanctuary to check off your bucket list.

Why choose Ethical Tourism?

Did you know that the Asian Elephant is now an endangered species? The population of Asian Elephants has decreased by approximately 50% over the last 60 years due to reasons such as hunting, deforestation and much more.

Elephant tourism in Asia has traditionally relied on elephants being used for riding, street begging and performing demeaning tricks for tourists, Visitors to Asia should understand that behind the scenes, the elephants are suffering at many camps and circuses.”.

Ry Emmerson, projects director at the Save Elephant Foundation

Under the blazing hot sun, elephants are being shackled in small cages forced to perform an array of tricks to “entertain” the paying human customer; painting with their trunks, riding bicycles, standing on their hind legs and throwing darts at balloons, just to name a few. This unnatural phenomenon happens because unethical elephant “tamers”, are “breaking down” the elephants in order to be controlled by humans for riding and working in the tourist industry.

This traditional method is known as phajaan which involves keeping younger elephants tied up in cages, starvation, beatings and sleep deprivation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t just stop there. Mahouts are also using bull-hooks to discipline the performing elephants through use of pain tactics to train and control them. The tools are traditionally used on sensitive areas of the body such as behind the ears where the skin is “paper thin”, in the elephants anus, around the eyes where the skin is also very thin, and on the feet, trunk and around the mouth. This type of mistreatment of elephants often leads to elephant’s suffering from both physical and psychological injuries.

Since education on this issue is key to changing the future of elephant tourism, I highly encourage you to read up on this issue in more detail and share your sanctuary experience. Reading this blog and choosing to go ethical is the first step to hopefully putting an end to these cruel practices. In addition, you can help put a stop to this cruel industry by signing this petition.

Once you start doing some research, you will notice there are A LOT of elephant sanctuaries around the Chiang Mai area. I personally spent hours researching trying to find the perfect sanctuary for my trip. Below are the 2 sanctuaries that I ended up choosing between, both of which are very different experiences.

  1. Elephant Nature Park

Top on everyones list is Elephant Nature Park, and for good reason. ENP is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center in Northern Thailand whose mission is to protect and care for mistreated elephants rescued from the tourism and logging industries. Established in the 1990’s, Elephant Nature Park has been involved in dozens of rescues of distressed elephants from an unethical tourist industry aiming to provide a natural environment for not only elephants but also for dogs, cats, buffaloes and many other animals to live under their care.

The park is located approximately 60km from the city, and all of the tours include either transport to the project from each city office, bus station or the hotel you are staying at. You can choose from approximately 30+ tours ranging anywhere from overnight stays to jungle treks alongside the elephants in their natural habitat, bathing in the river with the elephants and helping feed them. You can find a list of their tours and volunteer opportunities here.

2. Chiangmai Elephant Land

Next on my list to share with you is this newcomer, a sustainable, ethical and eco-friendly sanctuary, that started in approximately 2016. This elephant sanctuary which is located approximately 2 hours from Chiang Mai’s city center aims to provide a better life for their elephants by giving them unspoiled land to roam, rich of forrest to enjoy and beautiful natural waterfalls to relax. With only four elephants on site, Chiangmai Elephant Land gives you the opportunity to have a close intimate day with your elephants where you will learn about the history of the land, the local villages and your friendly giants.

Once you book the tour, your tour guide will pick you up from any location in the Chiang Mai area and bring you directly to the location. Sign up for this tour here.

Which Elephant Sanctuary did I end up choosing?

After hours of back and forth, I ended up going with Chiangmai Elephant Land for my elephant sanctuary experience.

Why did I choose this sanctuary? Well to begin, I liked the idea of having a more intimate experience with my elephants. After visiting multiple temples in the Chiang Mai area and seeing how crowded they got with tourists, I knew I wanted a more authentic, uncrowded jungle experience with my elephants. Needless to say, I was very happy with my decision.

Our tour started off with a complimentary pick up from our hotel in Chiang Mai, followed by a 2 hour ride in to the mountains of Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in all of Thailand. For the second half of the car ride, we drove through unpaved roads driving through local villages, rice fields and experiencing some of the most stunning views. I highly recommend bringing a jacket and pants as you will be riding on the back of a van with no windows for the majority of the ride. If you get easily car sick, I also recommend taking Dramamine. Once you take Dramamine, you’ll be totally fine.

During my tour, I spent a full day with 4 beautiful female elephants (2 mothers and their daughters) and instead of riding them, I was able to feed them organic bananas from the local village (supporting not only the elephants but also the Karen Tribes), walk with them through the jungle and care for them as if they were my own. You are given traditional mahout outfits to wear, which was all part of the fun and nice because you did not need to stress about making your own clothes dirty.

We then spent approximately 2 hours following the elephants through the jungle, watching how they interacted with the environment in their most natural way. Majority of the time the elephants were eating and walking at their own pace, but from time to time, they would pop over to come say hello and it was absolutely precious. It was nice because the elephants moved at a pretty relaxed pace making the trip very relaxing and allowing time for us to ask our guide, Superboy, some questions.

Once the trek was done, it was time for some lunch where we were served vegetarian pad Thai, fruits (mangos, pineapples, watermelon), egg rolls, chicken nuggets and tea/coffee.

Once lunch was complete it was time to get down and dirty with the elephants in the mud spa. Don’t be fooled, the elephants here are free to do whatever they please so we did experience one of the elephants excitingly having an accident, in the mud bath… But that’s nature my friends so plug your nose and enjoy!

Since each elephant had such a unique personality, you could tell not all of the elephants wanted to participate so what I really respected with this tour was none of the elephants were forced to participate in the mud bath. The baby elephant on the other hand, was having the time of her life. She was having so much fun splashing in the water and playing with the mahouts.

Once the mud bath was over, we walked over to the natural waterfall, which is the only sanctuary in the area that has a natural waterfall on their land. We walked over the waterfall first followed by the elephants. The water was extremely cold, but once we got in the water with the elephants, you completely forgot about how cold it was because the experience was so magical. Make sure you bring a change of warm clothes after so you are comfortable and warm.

Now, I have to give a big shout out to the mahouts, who were with us the entire time. There was a moment, I was walking down the hill and the huge, giant elephants were behind me and I was absolutely terrified that they would run over me. But the mahouts have such great experience with their elephants that they knew exactly how to handle every situation so the the overall experience felt very safe. Not only was the tour safe, they were constantly bringing such great energy to the tour with the largest smiles on their faces. You could tell they absolutely loved the elephants and were so genuinely happy to be able to give these elephants the sustainable, and ethical lifestyle they deserve.

Overall, my experience with Chiangmai Elephant Land was one I will never forget. I am very happy that I chose this tour, as it gave me a true, authentic jungle experience and allowed for our small group of 7 individuals to have an intimate day with our elephants. Not only did us attending help fund the elephants at the sanctuary, but also helps support the local villages. I highly recommend Chiangmai Elephant Land to anyone who is traveling to the Chiang Mai area.

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